Book Review: The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu

The Grace of Kings is, in a word, stunning. Normally I try to avoid making comparisons with my reviews, but here it’s fitting. Ken Liu’s debut possesses all the epic grandeur, intelligence, and dignity of a Guy Gavriel Kay novel, accented by the complexities, intricacies, and smirking humor of Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen. It’s a huge, sprawling epic, with a cast of characters that are challenging, but so well-rounded and distinct as to be immediately memorable.

There’s a little bit of everything here, with influences ranging from Asian culture to Middle Eastern mythologies, from the depths of political and ethical philosophy to the heights of steampunk and magic. The storytelling is exquisite, complex and poetic, but natural and easily flowing. It’s a narrative that serves to draw the reader in, with characters who insist we stick around and enjoy the story.

Kuni Garu is the charming, clever, personable bandit who grows up to become a rebel leader and political force in his own right. Paradoxically, he’s utterly consumed by the ethics of leadership, but wholly defined by the treacherous manipulation of the rules of war. Mata Zyndu, on the other hand, is the very epitome of the noble but ruthless warrior. He would rather be trusted and obeyed than loved and admired, but is crippled by what he sees as the most intimate and personal of betrayals. It’s a genuine sort of friendship, one that slowly deteriorates under the pressures of war, until allies become enemies in an unorthodox war. This is so very much not a simple story of good versus evil. It’s a novel of complex ambiguity, one where concepts of right and wrong are as ethereal as the gods and goddesses who watch over their children.

While Kuni and Mata are the primary protagonists here, they are just two of the more strategic pieces on a very crowded chessboard. Warriors, rulers, politicians, friends, brothers, lovers, and mothers all have a part to play, and each and every one of them make an impact upon the page, even if they barely have time to exchange names. There were characters I despised with a passion, whom I wanted to see suffer the most horrible atrocities imaginable, and others I absolutely loved, whom I looked forward to meeting again when they weren’t the focus, and celebrated when they were. Jia and Risana are far more than just wives and mothers, they’re women who help to shape the course of war. Luan and Gin are the most admirable of ordinary people, adventurers and inventors who give of themselves to bring about an end to war. Mira and Kikomo are two of the most tragic figures in the novel, women who understand the definition of sacrifice better than any soldier.

As the novel opens, it seems that this is destined to be the story of one momentous victory, but it’s really about a series of multiple victories and even more defeats. It’s a conflict that moves forward at a breakneck pace, racing along from one island to another, and one army to another. It’s bloody and brutal, but it’s also beautiful. This is a story that works on so many levels – the personal, the political, the martial, and the magical. Mythology and science are equal partners in the conflict, both nudging the conflict in the right direction but, at the end of the day, it all comes down to the relationship between Kuni and Mata.

I came away from The Grace of Kings with mixed emotions, entirely satisfied with the way Liu resolved the story, but a little uncertain about how he’s left the world. That’s not a complaint – in fact, I daresay that’s precisely his intent. When a story is so much about uncertainty and ambiguity, it would be the worst of all the betrayals within its pagers for it to end on a note that either simple or clear.

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